A Renewed Mission: What’s next for Right To Know


When TheStory.ie came into this world nearly ten years ago now, it began as an experimental blog run by journalists on a volunteer basis.

It was an attempt to bring together investigative journalism, the right to freedom of information (FOI), and transparency advocacy, to see what would come out.

Through the use of systematic FOI requests, legal appeals, data journalism, and the online archiving of every government document released to us, what came out wasn’t half-bad.

In 2013 we vigorously campaigned against the introduction of upfront fees for FOI requests, sounding the alarm when we saw that there was an attempt to introduce them via a Committee Stage amendment to the drafting of the 2014 FOI bill.

In 2014 the infamous “Trichet Letters” were released, detailing the immense pressure brought to bear on the Irish state by the European Central Bank (ECB) in 2010, following a three-year appeals process which we initiated via the EU ombudsman.
We were also the first to publish the letter which Ireland sent formally seeking a bailout.

In 2015 NAMA were defeated in the Supreme Court on an issue directly related to its transparency and accountability, based on a request we sent in February 2010, and on a lengthy submission made by us (with the enormous work of lawyer Fred Logue advising pro bono).

In 2016 then, we finally took the plunge and started Right to Know (RTK), the non-profit NGO focused on transparency and access-to-information advocacy which now publishes TheStory.ie.
In summer of this year, we won a case against An Taoiseach in relation to accessing records of Cabinet discussions, which you can read about below.

This was all informed by the strong belief that the right to the
freedom of expression depends critically on the right to be informed: the right to information.

Since these are clearly times when an independent free-press has never been more vital, we’re taking things one step further, developing into a fully-fledged, if lean,
non-profit investigative journalism newsroom.

We’ve expanded our team, and in addition to continuing to push for greater transparency and accountability, we’ve got some very exciting projects in the works:

  • We’ll be publishing this monthly newsletter, giving a roundup of what we’re working on and what other journalists in Ireland have been publishing using access to information legislation.
  • We’re launching a podcast, where we’ll be discussing the state of public information journalism, and talking to some of the best hands around about how they go about their work.
  • We’re initiating several special projects, where we’ll be routinely collecting and publicly uploading Ministerial Diaries, Local Authority annual financial returns and asset registries, departmental reports, declared donations, and more…
  • We’ve already begun targeted in-depth investigations based on Freedom of Information requests
  • We’re offering FOI Training sessions and seminars

That’s where we need your help.

We are dedicated to building a sustainable independent public-interest news organisation that can push for greater accountability and transparency, without paywalls or advertising.

That means we need the support of people who think that it’s worthwhile having such an organisation around. We recognise that our appeal is slightly narrow in its focus, but part of our ultimate goal is to build a community of people who share our belief that being informed is a key part of civic and public life, and this kind of work requires public support to operate. We’re also committed to total transparency in releasing our own accounts, and showing our supporters where their donations go, and how they are directly contributing to independent public-interest journalism.

Please consider becoming a donor if you think you can, but if not, stay tuned anyway because it’s all kicking off from here.


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Stay Tuned:

You can also keep up to date with our work by following our campaigning work here on the blog as well as Twitter and Facebook.

To see the stories that come FOI-sourced investigative work, go to TheStory.ie  and follow TheStory.ie’s Twitter.

Information Commissioner orders UCC to answer questions about Apple relationship

Apple is one of the largest employers in Ireland and certainly the largest employer in Cork.

The US company is at the centre of one of the most significant European State aid cases of all time. This year the European Commission ruled that Ireland’s tax arrangements with Apple were illegal. The result is that Ireland must recover over €13 billion from the American electronics giant in illegally foregone taxes. While the case is now set to be appealed, the finding is considered to be an attack on Ireland’s tax system which is designed to attract foreign direct investment.

Given the importance of the Apple State aid case we were interested in finding out what supports, either financial or otherwise Apple was providing to UCC. Such supports are rarely controversial, large companies often sponsor research and cooperate with universities with a view to attracting graduates. Sometimes a large corporation wants to give something back and will contribute philanthropic money to educational establishments.

Universities and academics are considered to be experts in many areas of technology, economics, and policy, and their views are often reported as independent and objective and reported as such without question.

To maintain that reputation transparency in respect of private funding is important so that the public can know what interests are at play.

While there is absolutely no indication whatsoever that Apple exerts influence on UCC we felt that it was important that any financial or other support that Apple gives to UCC is known given the public controversy over its operations in Ireland.

In September we filed an FOI request with the university looking for full details of the support it received from Apple since 2011. UCC chose not to respond to our request including our request for an internal review. In the end it only responded once an appeal was lodged with the Information Commissioner.

In its response, UCC made contradictory claims. It said its accounting system does not record the identity of persons making payments to it and without offering any assistance it said that the volume of records would be too large for it to handle.

The Information Commissioner has now found that UCC’s justification was inadequate and ordered it to answer the request.

Lobbying the Data Protection Commissioner

Should the Data Protection Commissioner be transparent about lobbying communications she receives?

That is a question we are asking the Information Commissioner to answer in an application we filed last week for a review of a decision of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner to refuse to grant access to records relating to communications with lobbyists representing large multinational companies and trade associations.

Since May 2015 lobbyists must register and provide information about activities where they communicate with certain public officials – including the Data Protection Commissioner – in relation to development of public policy, preparation of amendment of legislation and award of financial supports involving public funds. The legislation is not intended to prevent or inhibit lobbying, which is an essential part of the democratic process, but to make it more transparent.

We noticed that the Data Protection Commissioner has been lobbied on quite a few occasions by companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo and Accenture and trade bodies such as IBEC and the American Chamber of Commerce. In one instance the lobbying took place in the Irish Embassy in Washington DC and another purported to be “To ensure Ireland remains the global location of choice for US investment”.

Wanting to learn more about this lobbying we filed an FOI request with the Data Protection Commissioner’s Office on 2 September 2016 looking for comprehensive information about each of eight separate lobbying activities.

It is worth recalling that to protect the confidentiality of the Data Protection Commissioner’s statutory functions her office is not fully subject to FOI. Only records relating to the “general administration” of the office are accessible.

Our request was refused on the basis that it did not relate to the general administration of the office since the Commissioner was lobbied about data protection matters. We stressed that communication with a person because she holds public office is not necessarily the same as communications with her pursuant to a statutory functions of that office.

We take the view that, by definition, communications with the Data Protection Commissioner exercising her statutory functions is not lobbying and conversely communications disclosed on the lobbying register must be within scope of FOI.

The Data Protection Commissioner sees it differently. She thinks that lobbying communications – no matter the circumstances – come within her statutory functions and therefore must be protected with such a high degree of confidentiality that the right of access under FOI cannot apply.

The Irish Data Protection Commissioner, as the single European regulator of many of the world’s largest internet companies, plays a pivotal and crucial role in the supervision of the processing of personal information in the European Union. As a matter of principle we believe that lobbying communications between her and vested interests should be transparent to members of the public.

We have asked the Information Commissioner to rule that records of lobbying communication with the Data Protection Commissioner are accessible under FOI and to order her to process our request.

We will update readers on the case as it progresses.

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